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I've been gardening and writing about gardening for more than 20 years, yet I find I'm always learning new things about the plants, insects and other critters that call my backyard home. That's the great thing about gardening — it's never boring! I've worked as a landscaper, on an organic farm, as a research technician in a plant pathology lab and ran a small cut-flower business, all of which inform my garden writing. Someone once asked me when I'll be finished with my gardens, to which I replied, "Never!" For me, gardening is a process, not a goal.
IF you think a potato is just a potato, think again. You know how the inhabitants of some regions in the frozen North have dozens of different words for snow depending on its texture, etc.? We could well do the same for potatoes. Starchy, waxy, fluffy, moist, dry, creamy, mealy, floury — all are commonly used to describe potato flesh.
Baked russet potatoes have crisp skin and a fluffy interior.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of potato varieties; they vary in texture and behave differently when cooked. If you make a pot of soup and toss in some potato chunks, one of two things happens: The potatoes chunks remain intact, or they disintegrate. The difference is due to the type of starch and the amount of moisture in the flesh — two characteristics that are used to categorize potato varieties. The potatoes that remain intact are of the "moist, waxy" variety; the ones that fall apart are in the "dry, mealy" category. For detailed information on the two types of potato starch and how it affects texture, read The Best Cooking Techniques for Potatoes.
Here we'll look at some categories of potatoes, where the varieties we sell fit in, and provide some insight into what you can expect in the kitchen.
Characterized by their rough brown skin and white flesh, varieties such as Butte fall into the dry/mealy end of the texture spectrum. When baked, the thick skin crisps up to create a perfect "jacket" for the fluffy interior. They're easy to mash and ideal for frying and roasting. However, they'll disintegrate in soups and stews.
Compared to russets, white potatoes, such as Onaway and Elba have smoother, thinner and lighter-colored skin. Considered all-purpose potatoes, they are creamy when baked yet hold their texture when boiled. If you don't know what potatoes to use in a recipe, you'll be safe with white potatoes.
Made familiar by the popular Yukon Gold variety, these potatoes have fine-grained, dense flesh that holds its shape when cooked. They're ideal for potato salad, soups and stews, but can also be roasted and baked. Carola potatoes also fall into this category.
Potatoes with red/pink or purple/blue flesh are as easy to grow in your garden as any other potato and, if you ask me, way more fun to harvest, cook and eat. All-Blue has dark, purple-blue skin and lighter blue flesh. It is somewhat mealy, making it good for baking. All-Blues keep their color best when baked, microwaved or fried; when boiled, the flesh fades to a grayish blue. Some people think it has a subtle nutty flavor. Cranberry Red, also known as All-Red, has red skin and pink flesh (sometimes swirled with white) with a dense texture that holds its shape, making it ideal for boiling and sauteing. Red Cloud is a red-skinned potato with dry, white flesh that's perfect for baking.
Like the name implies, fingerling potatoes, such as Russian Banana, are shaped like fingers — small and elongated. They have thin, tender skin (thankfully, because they'd be difficult to peel) and are fantastic roasted. Because they're so small, you can boil them whole, skin intact, so they don't absorb as much water as potato chunks, making them great for potato salad, too.
Immature potatoes that are harvested in early summer before they are fully mature (before the vines die back) are called "new potatoes." They can be any variety. Their skin is thin and tender, and they're often boiled whole and tossed with butter and fresh parsley. They have a shorter shelf life than mature potatoes.
Yukon Gold potatoes keep their shape when boiled and the yellow flesh looks buttery.
Baked: Russets are the classic for baking, although any potato can be baked.
Chowder: Use waxy potatoes in chowder because they'll keep their shape.
French fries: Most fries are made with russets.
Hash browns: Russets hold together better than waxy varieties.
Mashed: Russets make the fluffiest mashed potatoes, but any variety can be mashed.
Potato pancakes/latkes: Russets hold together better than waxy types.
Potato salad: Waxy varieties and fingerlings are best because they don't fall apart.
Scalloped potatoes: Waxy varieties hold their shape and have a pleasing texture.
Toss fingerling potatoes with olive oil and salt and roast for an easy side dish.
Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Wikipedia, and the Cecil Adams/The Straight Dope.
Vermonter Suzanne DeJohn has been gardening and writing about gardening for more than 20 years.
Last updated: 4/29/18
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